No Elections for Balochistan

** this article is scheduled for publication in the August 2013 issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Subscription to the digital copy is only $10 a year; print is only $44 a year! I highly recommend it as an excellent source of progressive political reporting and analysis on South Asia and the Middle East! ——

Recent assessments of Pakistan’s newly inaugurated Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, frequently declare him a changed man. Raised out of obscurity by the brutal junta of General Zia ul Haq, and hailing from a conservative industrialist background that was unfamiliar with national politics, Sharif was long seen as bound to the military by both ideology and expediency.

However, the abortion of his democratic term by the military coup of General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, and subsequent exile to 561bfa76-97c0-124cRiyadh and London, is said to have changed his tune. Once known for his generous political accommodation of the military, and intransigence and confrontationalism with fellow politicians, Sharif is reported to have reversed the objects of his ire and affection.

In the overture of his third term as Prime Minister, he has issued strident warning to the military, and struck a remarkably conciliatory note in the National Assembly. His party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), gained an overwhelming plurality of the National Assembly seats, nearly four times as much as its closest rival. It was buoyed to victory largely by the province of Punjab, where the party has deep roots. Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab houses over half of the territorially contested National Assembly seats, of which PML-N won 83%. This represented almost 95% of all the seats the party gained in the National Assembly.

In Sindh and Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, PML-N failed to gain a comparable standing. The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) maintained its popularity in its stronghold of Sindh, gaining 35 out of the 76 National Assembly seats from the province. Sharif’s Muslim League only captured four seats in the province. In Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa too, where electoral tides shift dramatically with each election, affording fresh space for parties to contest, Sharif failed to make inroads. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) captured about half of the 43 National Assembly seats in the province. By comparison, Sharif secured six.

Results of Provincial Assembly elections from these two provinces similarly highlighted the Punjab-centricity of the PML-N. In Punjab’s Provincial Assembly, Sharif captured 305 out of 393 seats. However, in Sindh, PPP won 86 – compared to PML-N’s 6 – out of a total of 161 Provincial Assembly seats. In Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, PML-N secured only about a third of the 45 seats PTI gained.

In a gesture of respect and recognition of their popular mandate – points emphasized in Sharif’s inaugural speech on June 5th – PML-N made no effort to form government through coalition in either province, choosing instead to remain in the opposition. Sharif also used his mid-May victory speech to congratulate his rivals on their provincial victories. It is a conciliatory move that many find uncharacteristic of the old Sharif.

If Sharif has evidenced some newfound warmth towards politicians, there will be plenty to test his change of heart towards the military.

Always the apex political force in Pakistan, the military’s entrenched position in the country’s politics became particularly obvious in Pakistan’s sole decade of elected rule, the years immediately preceding Sharif’s ouster. Courting the military became the primary avenue for political parties vying for incumbency to secure advantage over their rivals. The prospect of forcing a collapse of the rival’s government with the backroom assistance of the military heightened political power struggles in Pakistan to a disastrous crescendo. The decade saw four Presidents and five Prime Ministers come and leave.

Certainly, in exile and since, Sharif has been vocal about having learned from this mistake: the military must return to the barracks.

Sitting across the street from the Parliament House in Islamabad, 1,200 Baloch demand exactly that.

They are members of the Bugti clan, whose sit-in in Islamabad began in the first few days of May. They are protesting for the right to return to their tribal land, a demand upheld by the Supreme Court but made unattainable by military barricades that prevent their passage. The protestors are a stark reminder of the brutal military program in the province of Balochistan, where the Supreme Court has found the military and associated security institutions guilty of the abduction, torture and murder of thousands of Baloch.

The Baloch problem is several decades of forcible annexation, military repression, the denial of indigenous aspirations, and colonial resource extraction. And hopes that these elections might be the inception of change were dashed by the military, which manipulated and falsified results against nationalist candidates.

65 Years of Oppression

The Balochistan conflict has its roots in the disastrously executed British departure from its South Asian empire, which left the future of Balochistan – like that of Kashmir – to the newly established nations of Pakistan and India.

At the time of decolonization, modern-day Balochistan was comprised of British Balochistan, and the Khanate of Kalat and its principalities. The Khanate and its principalities accounted for a great majority of the area.

With British departure approaching, in late July, 1947, the representatives of British Balochistan overwhelmingly endorsed ascension to Pakistan. The Khanate, however, insisted on its right to form a sovereign state. With legal weight behind the Khanate’s demand, the government of Pakistan, just three days before the formation of the country, signed a joint statement with the Khan of Kalat, acknowledging the Khanate’s status as an “independent sovereign state.”

British and Pakistani colonial interests, however, came to deny the Baloch the right to self-determination.

The British were eager to establish presence in Balochistan to counter the nationalist government Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran. The Khanate, with its tenuous hold over its territory, offered a sub-optimal ally. Pakistan, both institutionally stronger and more pliable to British demands, was preferable, and was encouraged to incorporate the Khanate into its territory. Always suspicious of the fidelity of a region that claimed primary cultural ties with Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan needed little prompt to absorb large, strategic and resource-rich Khanate into its federation.

Upon the country’s formation, Pakistan demanded that the Khanate, as it had done with the British, cede to the Pakistani federation authority over foreign affairs, currency and defense. As the Khanate negotiated these demands, Pakistan successfully convinced Kalat’s principalities to independently accede to Pakistan. On April 1st, 1948, Pakistani forces were dispatched to Kalat, and the Khan of Kalat capitulated, acquiescing to Pakistani terms.

The Khan’s brother, Prince Abdul Karim, immediately rejected the Khanate’s consolidation into Pakistan, and launched an armed resistance from Afghanistan. However, unable to secure Afghan or Soviet support for his mission, he negotiated amnesty and safe passage with the Pakistani military. Upon his return, however, he was promptly arrested and imprisoned. It is a betrayal frequently invoked by Baloch nationalists.

Five years later, in 1955, the government of Pakistan further eroded the independence accorded to what was now known as the Kalat Division through the introduction of the One Unit scheme, which combined the various provinces and territories of then-West Pakistan into a single federal unit. Designed as a response to East-Pakistani demands of representation, the policy would nevertheless strip the Bloch of the conditions of their ascension.

Resistant to this loss of independence, the Khan attempted to negotiate Baloch exclusion from the Unit. The Pakistani army once again marched into Kalat, forcibly incorporating Balochistan into the Unit, and arresting the Khan. Riots and armed opposition by the Baloch followed, and once again met the brutal force of the Pakistani military. And as with the Prince, key Baloch leaders, promised amnesty under eventual ceasefire conditions, were arrested and executed once they lay down their arms. This time, the Pakistan also established military bases in the area, the closure of which Baloch continue to demand today.

The 1970s saw a fresh wave of Baloch repression. First, in July 1970, the formation of provinces following the dissolution of the One Unit policy in West Pakistan eroded Baloch autonomy. The independence of the former Kalat Division was further circumscribed as it was reincarnated as Balochistan, a formal province of Pakistan. In an additional attempt to diminish Baloch voice, the boundaries of the new province included adjacent Pashtun-majority areas in the north and excised Baloch majority areas in the east.

Subsequently, after East Pakistani demands for representation culminated in the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971, the recently elected nationalist government in Balochistan found itself increasingly unwelcome in a truncated Pakistan that was eager to assert its ideological and territorial unity. In 1973, with the Cold War in full swing, alleging that it was colluding with the USSR to dismember Iran and Pakistan, President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto dismissed the provincial government of Balochistan, and banned the primary Baloch national party, the National Awami Party (NAP). The dismissal was timed with a staged seizure of arms from the house of the Iraqi Defense Attaché that the Pakistani government asserted were headed for the Baloch resistance, a claim subsequently falsified. President’s rule was established in the province.

Baloch military resistance began 2 months later. Pakistan retaliated by imprisoning major Baloch leaders, including the province’s former Chief Minister and its Governor. The conflict was intense, with Pakistan stationing 80,000 troops in Balochistan at its peak. Regional neighbors too got involved: 30 US Cobra helicopters manned by Iranian pilots were dispatched by the Shah of Iran to the assistance of the Pakistani military. The insurgency ended only with the coup of the Bhutto government by General Zia, who opted to negotiate a settlement to what seemed like an unwinnable war.

Three decades later, General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship brought new atrocities to Balochistan. In a bid to enervate his civilian rivals, the military dictator reinvigorated the Cold War alliance with the religious right, and engineered a six-party alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

To clear the field for MMA, in the lead-up to the 2002 elections, the government initiated legal action against prominent Baloch nationalists, and introduced electoral reforms to prevent their candidacy. With the nationalists sidelined, MMA coasted to victory in the elections. Appointing a figurehead Baloch as Prime Minister, whose position enjoyed no mentionable authority over even his own cabinet, the MMA government usurped key ministries. Unsurprisingly, the nationalists rejected the military’s manipulations, and a low-level insurgency took hold.

Musharraf’s intransigence contributed to escalating tensions, and after an attack on a public forum attended by the dictator, security forces took control of parts of the province. In 2006, the murder of Baloch leader Akbar Khan Bugti, for which Pervez Musharraf is currently facing charges, brought Baloch alienation to a new peak.

Disillusioned by rigged electoral politics, the nationalists boycotted the next general elections, held in 2008. The political space thus created allowed the military to engage in massive poll rigging: voter turnout was already low at 33% (compared to a national average of 44%), yet 65% of the ballots cast were later determined to be unverifiable. Under this mal-election, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) formed an ineffectual government in the province with no real popular mandate.

Musharraf’s tenure introduced a new dimension to the Balochistan conflict. If previously both state and military had been complicit in Baloch repression, after the 2008 elections, the military began to act autonomous of government control. It no longer conducted an acknowledged campaign in the province; instead, a brutal kill-and-dump policy, executed by local security forces, clandestine agencies, and non-state actors was instituted. Over the next five years, thousands of Baloch were victims of its violence.

Meanwhile, the toothless provincial government, which made feeble attempts at accommodating Baloch demands, openly admitted its impotency, with the Chief Minister claiming that a parallel government of the security forces ran the province. The nationalists now openly began to talk of secession.

No Elections for Balochistan

After those five years, Baloch expectations have reached a new nadir. With most prominent nationalist leaders in exile, and the rhetoric of secession circulating, Baloch appetite for the electoral process has dramatically diminished.

This May’s elections registered the lowest turnout in the history of the province. Nationally, the elections registered about a 60% turnout. However, in Balochistan, turnout was a dismal 10%.

In areas where voter turnout was higher, reports quickly surfaced of the abduction and assault of Baloch candidates. In cases where this was insufficient to meet the impositions of the military, results from polling stations were withheld. The results that eventually emerged gave nationalists a substantially lower proportion of the vote than is popularly believed to have been theirs. Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M), among the most prominent of the handful of nationalists that participated in the election, has been vociferously protesting the results.

Under these conditions, Sharif’s PML-N won a plurality of the Provincial assembly seats: 17 out of 68, with Pashtun nationalist party Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) coming in second with 14 seats. Baloch nationalist were best represented by the center-left National Party (NP), which secured 10 seats, placing it third in the province.

In an accommodation of the nationalists, PML-N has ceded the office of Provincial Governor to PMAP, and the Chief Minister’s spot to NP. However, if the last five years are any indication, such political gesticulation will be insufficient. The military must be reigned in.

Importantly, Sharif’s professed intent to divest from the War on Terror might deny the military a key means of sustaining its project in Balochistan.

In Washington, Baloch repression falls on deaf ears. Among American military planners, Baloch aspirations take a distant backseat to the logic of the War on Terror, which demands that Pakistan establish firm state writ in the province. The present chaos has allowed a variety of militant groups fighting the United States to find sanctuary in Balochistan. Indeed, the infamous Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban is so named after the Baloch provincial capital of Quetta. The Pakistani military has used American demands for greater state control over the province to justify its operations. Seeking its own military interests, America has not questioned the policy.

It is reflective of this tacit American approval that despite the repeated assertions that weapons being furnished to the Pakistani military for the War on Terror are being used against the Baloch, the United States has offered no comment.

Without American arms to subdue the nationalists, and without imperial cover for its policies, the Pakistani military is likely to find it much harder to continue its operations in Balochistan. However, the Pakistani military, both for corporate and ideological reasons, is firmly invested in the War on Terror.

Once firmly in the military’s pocket, Sharif’s newfound distance from the military will be put to the test in Balochistan. Over the last few years, Sharif has spoken forcefully on the need to chart a peaceful, demilitarized future for Pakistan. Balochistan is in dire need for him to abide by his words.



– Foreign Policy Institute, “On The Margins of History: Balochis in Pakistan,” (November 2006)

– Brown, Dawod, Irantalab, and Naqi, “Balochistan Case Study,”  Carleton University (June 2012)

– Pakistan Institute Of Legislative Development And Transparency, “Balochistan: Civil Military Relations,” PILDAT Issue Paper (March 2012)

– International Crisis Group, “Pakistan: The Worsening Crisis in Balochistan,” Asia Report 119 (September 14,  2006)

– Kupecz, “Pakistan’s Balochistan Insurgency: History, Conflict Drivers, and Regional Implications,” International Affairs Review, Volume XX-3 (Spring 2012)

– Heeg, “Insurgency In Balochistan”, Foreign Military Studies Office

– Andley, Priyashree, “Balochistan: A Backgrounder,” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Special Report 32 (2006)

– Sial, and Basit, “Conflict and Insecurity in Balochistan: Assessing Strategic Policy Options for Peace and Security”, Institute For Peace Studies (Oct-Dec 2010)